Using Reinforcement and Rewards to Train Your Pet

What are the fundamentals of training?

The key to basic training is to reward your pet for engaging in the behaviors that you prefer. Without your guidance, pets act in ways that they find rewarding, whether they are desirable for you or not. Through training, you can teach your pet to engage in behaviors that are appropriate for your lifestyle. Basic training is used to establish these good habits.

Training can also be used to change an undesirable behavior. It is important to determine the reason the pet does a behavior to begin with—what is the reward and/or what need is being satisfied? By knowing the motivation behind a behavior, you can train a more desirable replacement behavior that both satisfies your pet’s need and is more appropriate for your living situation.

Most of all, training is a fun way to interact with your pet. Whether you are interested in teaching tricks, participating in sports such as agility, or even teaching your pet to do practical behaviors such as fetching your slippers, training improves communication and can provide hours of pleasure for you and your pet.

To train effectively, we first need to understand a bit about how learning works, and how positive reinforcement can be used as an effective training tool.

How does learning take place?

Pets, like people, engage in behaviors that “work.” They will repeat behaviors that have a favorable or meaningful result. The first step in establishing a new behavior is to teach your pet that they will receive a reward for that behavior.

It’s helpful to think of learning as a three-part behavioral sequence (A-B-C):

  • A = Antecedent. What happens immediately before the behavior?
  • B = Behavior. What is the behavior or skill of interest?
  • C = Consequence. What happens during or immediately after the behavior? This is the “result” from the pet’s point of view.

You can create a training plan by arranging A and C in order to get your pet to do the desired behavior (B).

How does positive reinforcement work?

Positive reinforcement is the process of delivering something positive (called a positive reinforcer or reward) in response to a behavior in order to increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated in the future.  The reinforcer may be anything your pet likes (e.g., delicious treats, a special toy, verbal praise).

How do I properly use positive reinforcement?

  • Be Quick! Deliver the reward within 1-2 seconds of the desired behavior.
  • Be Amazing! Make sure the reward is something the pet truly finds valuable.
  • Be Consistent. Reward the behavior every time it happens, especially in the early stages of training.
  • Be Observant. Watch for opportunities to reward any behavior you like.

Why should I reward my pet every time?

During training, the frequency of reinforcement is important. The rate at which behavior is reinforced (rewarded) is called the “reinforcement schedule.” There are two main schedules of reinforcement.

1. Continuous reinforcement: With continuous reinforcement, your pet receives a reward every time they do the behavior. When a reward is delivered immediately and every time, your pet will readily repeat the new behavior and the behavior will quickly become strong. It is important to use continuous reinforcement when teaching a new task.

2. Variable reinforcement: With variable reinforcement, the reward is delivered intermittently rather than after each performance of the behavior. For example, you may reward every third time, then perhaps two in a row, then maybe not until your pet has performed the behavior five more times.

Variable reinforcement can also be accomplished by varying the value or intensity of the reward. One way to change the intensity of the reward is to use low- and medium-value treats most of the time, and then variably add jackpots of higher value treats.

"Switching to a variable rate of reinforcement too early in the training plan can lead to a decrease in performance."

Variable reinforcement is used to maintain a behavior after your pet has been responding consistently. Switching to a variable rate of reinforcement too early in the training plan can lead to a decrease in performance, so monitor your pet’s responses any time you change the reinforcement schedule.

Why does my pet continue to do certain behaviors even though I did not reward them?

Many behaviors are innately or naturally rewarding and your pet may be inclined to continue these because they feel good. To change these behaviors, you need to use a reward that is even more valuable than the natural reward.

For example, if your dog loves to go into the yard, they are naturally rewarded when they rush through an open door. Let’s use the A-B-C approach to understand how this works.

  • A: The antecedent is that your dog runs to the door and the door is opened.
  • B: The behavior you want to modify is your dog rushing through the open door.
  • C: The natural consequence, before training, is that your dog gains access to the yard—they are naturally rewarded for rushing through the door.

Rushing through the door led to a positive outcome for the dog, so the behavior will continue and get stronger over time.

To change this behavior, you could teach your dog to sit on their bed just a few feet from the door and give her something wonderful—a handful of delicious treats for example—while your helper opens the door. Now that the dog is sitting quietly, you can release them to “go outside”. Your dog will soon naturally go to the mat and sit instead of rushing to the door. In the end, they are doubly rewarded when they wait patiently, since they get both treats and outdoor time.

Here is the A-B-C for going outside once training is complete:

  • A: The antecedent is that your dog sits on their bed, the door is opened, and they are invited to go out.
  • B: The behavior is that your dog sits quietly.
  • C: The consequence is that your dog gains access to the yard after sitting quietly.

Now, since sitting quietly led to a positive outcome—the door opened and the yard became available—the desired behavior of sitting quietly will continue and will get stronger over time.

What type of rewards would I use for my cat?

Many cats love small food treats, squeezable treats like Churu Paste, small licks of whipped cream, tiny pieces of marshmallow, or tiny pieces of processed meat or tuna fish. Treats should be very small—about one-quarter to one-half the size of a pea or pencil eraser.

Cats have strict nutritional needs. When using treats, be sure that your cat still eats the required daily amount of fully nutritious food and that your cat does not become overweight. Some cats are very food motivated and will work for tiny morsels of fully balanced dry or canned cat food. Test your cat’s preference by introducing a novel brand of food for training—a different brand than your cat usually eats. Food is a powerful motivator, but it is not the only reward available. Some cats prefer to be rewarded with a pet or chin scratch. Many cats love to be brushed or play with a toy. Any of these can be used for positive reinforcement training.

What is marker-based training and how does it work?

Sometimes, it’s not practical or possible to immediately deliver a reward. A marker signal, sometimes called a secondary reinforcer, can be used to precisely mark the behavior as “nicely done”. The marker signal lets your dog know that a treat is on the way. A marker signal can be any neutral sound or word: "yes”, a clicker, or even a bell.

Before the marker signal can be used, you must do some extra training to create a positive association between the sound and the primary reward (e.g., food). This training involves pairing the marker signal with a reward: click or say “yes,” then immediately toss a treat. Repeat a few times in a row. Soon, your pet will hear the marker signal and look for the reward; you have successfully created a positive association.

When using the marker, always follow with a food treat, toy, or other beloved reward as soon as possible, ideally within 3 seconds. Markers are extremely useful when training complex behaviors or when training must be done from a distance.